Co-written with Thomas Nash.
For 73 years he has patrolled the streets of Gotham City, waging a never-ending war against crime and the evil that men do. Possessing no super-powers and using no weapons (save for what he carries in his "utility belt"), he instead relies on his cunning, vast fortune, and, above all, his skills in hand-to-hand combat to defeat his opponents. It has long been known Batman is one of the - if not the - most skilled unarmed combatants in the world, but just how good of fighter is the Dark Knight, and in what disciplines?
With the upcoming release of Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, I thought it would be interesting to examine Batman's martial art prowess. Despite being a comic book character, Batman has always possessed a certain level of believability that other superheroes, such as Superman and Spider-Man, seem to lack. Possessing no superpowers of his own but instead relying on his wits and skills (and, yes, occasional gadget), Batman might not be 100% realistic but he is very much "plausible", making him someone we could feasibly imagine existing in the real world.
So what martial arts does Batman know and utilize? Well, according to the comic books "he is a master of all fighting arts" (Detective Comics #411) who "spent years perfecting every known fighting discipline." (The Ultimate Guide to the Justice League). The Ultimate Guide to Batman is even more specific, describing how "There are 127 major styles of combat. While abroad, Bruce learned them all, from Aikido to Yaw-Yan." And not only is Batman seemingly a master of every known martial art in the world, he is also apparently an expert in many esoteric fighting styles, the nature of which seem to be only known by the writers.
Unfortunately, going by those descriptions makes Batman suddenly very "implausible", if not outright impossible. This absurd level of expertise is the result of seven plus decades of stories from different comic book eras, with different taste and demands, and from an incalculable number of authors, each with their own interpretation of the character and making their own additions, for better or worse.
With Batman having gone through so many changes over the years, it would be impossible to accurately chronicle every skill or discipline he has used, and even if we could it would be even more impossible to imagine anyone, even someone as extraordinary as the Batman, knowing them all. In such a case, it is best to look at what the original creators, Bob Kane (and an un-credited Bill Finger), had intended. Luckily for us, this "Golden Age" Batman (or Batman of Earth-2 if you're an old DC comic fan) has a very specific list of disciplines he uses, which are both diverse and practical, making our masked vigilante a very well-rounded and effective fighter.
Batman's origin story is widely known: after witnessing the traumatic murder of his parents by a would-be mugger, an 8-year-old Bruce Wayne swears on their eternal spirits that he will dedicate the rest of his life conducting a war on crime. For the next 15 years he set to molding himself into the perfect crimefighter, traveling the world to study psychology, chemistry, forensics, and more to become a master criminalist and the world's greatest detective. He also spends countless hours acquiring other skills that will assist him in is new career: disguise, lock-picking, languages, various weapons, and, of course, a mastery of hand-to-hand combat.
Thanks to his single-minded dedication Bruce Wayne has been able to become one of the greatest unarmed combatants in history. An impressive feat considering that he has also mastered several fields of science in his quest to be the world's greatest detective. But how much could he know and how good could Batman possibly be after only 15 years of study? The first thing to realize is that the hours Batman put into accomplishing this task was beyond what any other human could ever be motivated to achieve. Malcolm Gladwell, in is book Outliers, suggested that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master a skill. That time spent on perfecting a craft is the difference between most people and your elite level athletes and artists. 10,000 hours is the equivalent of 20 hours of practice per week for 10 years; or, 4 hours a day, 5 days a week for a full decade. No easy task. But thanks to Bruce Wayne's single-minded dedication, or more accurately his single-minded fanaticism, it is conceivable that not only did he accumulate 10,000 hours during his 15-years of preparation (even while studying numerous other fields) but that he actually accumulated two to three times that many hours as every waking minute of his life was spent readying himself for becoming Batman. Improbable? Very much so, but impossible? Not to a comic book character who's willpower allows him to push his body and mind past all other human limits. Therefore Bruce Wayne is most likely not just merely knowledgeable in one martial art but has mastered two or possibly three, while also possessing an expertise in many, many more fighting disciplines.
So if Bruce Wayne had the time to master a couple of martial arts, which ones? The answer is given in his earliest appearance, where he demonstrated not only how dangerous he was with his bare hands but also revealed the disciplines with which he had the greatest proficiency. These fighting skills are put on display in his very first documented encounter of issue 29 of Detective Comics (May, 1939), in which he not only knocks out one thug with a single punch, but then proceeds to put the other in a headlock (which is possibly a chokehold, more on that later) before tossing him aside.
What is equally impressive to the ease in which he dispatches these two criminals, is the manner in which Batman is able to transition between striking and grappling, choosing his technique based on range and situation. It is as if he had read Bruce Lee's The Tao of Jeet Kun Do, and was applying the principles introduced within. Impossible of course, considering the fact that was his first fight of his career as Batman and took place almost two decades before that book was even published!
The inherent dangers in Batman's career as a vigilante dictates much of this fighting style. Thus some of the more popular and effective fighting techniques are no longer as effective when one considers the scenarios Batman find himself in. Often facing multiple opponents, who may be armed, means that Batman is best served staying on his feet during such encounters, out of the range of any clinching or grappling, until it to his benefit to do so. Groundfighting, unless facing a single opponent, would be too risky of proposition for him, as shown in these panels, where Batman seen to have made the almost fatal mistake of going to the ground against one opponent:
What this shows is that Batman will want to stay on his feet for most fights (with certain exceptions which we will cover later), especially when engaged with more than one opponent. It also means that he will want to strike and not be struck in return, something that seems obvious but for the Dark Knight has added importance. Imagine being Batman and being clipped by a fist or cudgel and losing consciousness, if even for only a flash second. It would be a death sentence when faced with multiple and/or armed opponents, thus it is imperative of Batman to make sure he is able to make multiple attacks while at the same time not receiving any blows in return.
The same principle applies to letting himself be grappled. Batman may grab an opponent but he will look to never let himself get held, leaving himself open to attack from his opponent's allies. If someone does get a hold of him, he must be able to quickly shake that person off or reverse the hold, and if he in return grabs an enemy combatant he must be able to throw that foe aside quickly so he won't be preoccupied when the next opponent approaches (of course, against a single opponent Batman uses a different strategy).
He will also not be looking for self-defense as much as offense. Being on the defensive, especially against multiple armed thugs, is too risky a proposition. He would be better served putting the criminals on the defensive, not giving them time to organize, to attack with their weapons, or for reinforcements to arrive. Two martial arts best fit these requirements: boxing and jiu-jitsu.
THE BOXING OF BATMAN
Many might be surprised to learn that one of the core fighting discipline of Batman isn’t some exotic, Eastern martial art, but good old fashioned fisticuffs. That he would have chosen to master boxing shouldn't come as a surprise, for not only was it readily available to an American boy during Bruce Wayne's childhood (especially during the era when he first appeared), but it is also a very effective martial art. In fact, for centuries now, it has been referred to as the "manly art of self-defense". A street-fighting crimefighter like Batman would find that, for his purposes, there is no better striking martial art than pugilism.
For someone like Batman, who regularly engages multiple (and often armed) opponents, one of his biggest concerns is being hit. Any strike, be it with a weapon or a fist, has the potential to stun him, rendering him helpless if even for a fraction of a second. Such a scenario would be potentially fatal with the criminal element he faces. As such boxing, which is sometimes called the art of hitting while not being hit, is the perfect martial art. By using the footwork, the angles, and the gauging of distances as taught in boxing, Batman can safely stay out of a knife or club welding opponents range, only moving in when an opening presents itself. He would also find boxing's emphasis on head movement, rolling with a punch and habit of keeping your hands up being very useful in minimizing the amount of damage he receives during a fight.
Boxing also provides him with the best punches in all martial arts. The technique's used by boxers allow them to generate more force in their punches, which combined with the padding in his gloves (which for all we known may serve as sap gloves) gives him a punch few can withstand. More often than not, thanks to his exceptional accuracy, he can knock out a foe with a single blow, allowing him to quickly disable threats. A must for a man in his line of work.
Batman has demonstrated one-punch knockout ability via hooks, straights, and uppercuts. But he is also not dependent on his power, and has shown the ability to put together lethal combinations, including vicious body shots often followed by an uppercut, or or four or five punch combos. (Both of these example can be seen above).
There is another benefit supplied by boxing, which is that it is a solely fist-based striking system. One would think that the lack of kicks would detriment in a street fight, but that is not the case for Batman who is often outnumbered. When kicking, one obviously has to take one foot off the ground, making quick movements, which are a must when another attacker appears or unforeseen events occur (such as explosions or charging vehicles), much more difficult to evade. Stability also becomes an issue, as someone who is kicking, and therefore only on one leg, is that much easier to trip or take down. Once again, a potentially life-ending scenario when fighting multiple opponents. Kicking attacks are generally slower as well in comparison to punching, as one must bring their foot back down before striking again while punches can be repeatedly unleashed in a short span of time. When facing multiple opponents, Batman often springs to the attack, counting on his footwork to stay out of danger while overloading his enemies with a rapid barrage of strikes. Even groups of revolver armed gangsters can be overcome by Batman thanks to the speed and force with which he attacks (an example of this is shown here). Boxing lets him do all this.
Of course the question becomes how good of a boxer is Batman? Well, fortunately for us we have actual evidence to gauge his skill level: in Batman #6, "Suicide Beat", Batman takes on a highly-ranked heavyweight fighter in a match, and even though his opponent cheats during the fight, the Dark Knight is still able to quickly knock him out. While this doesn't necessarily prove exactly where Batman would be ranked amongst professional fighters, it does show that he is skilled enough to take on the number one contender for the heavyweight championship and defeat him at his own game in less than one round. Now imagine how quickly Batman might have been able to dispatch him if wasn't restrained by the rules and was allowed to use some of his other disciplines? Now also imagine how your average street thug would fair against someone like Batman, who possessed the power of an Ernie Shavers and the striking accuracy of an Archie Moore?
Next installment we will continue detailing Batman's fighting style, covering his use of jiu-jitsu. So tune in same Bat-Channel, same Bat-time...
All art by Bob Kane unless otherwise noted.
Batman Vol. 1 No. 6, "The Crime School for Boys."
Detective Comics No. 33, "The Batman and How He Came to Be."
Detective Comics No. 27, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate."
Detective Comics No. 39, "The Horde of the Green Dragon."
Detective Comics No. 38, "Robin the Boy Wonder."
Detective Comics No. 454, "The Set-Up Caper." Art by Jose Louis Garcia-López
Batman Vol. 1 No. 260, "This One Will Kill You." Penciller Irv Novac, inker Dick Giordano.
Detective Comics No. 36, Untitled.
Batman Vol. 1 No. 6, "Suicide Beat."